BEFORE THERE WERE FREEZERS and refrigerators, preparing for the Great Fast involved cleaning out any meat or dairy products on hand. In parts of Europe meats would be cured for consumption after Pascha. Many Greeks observe what has been called “Roasted Thursday” – the Thursday in Meatfare week when all meats would be cooked to be eaten by the weekend. Many Slavs observe maslenitsa, the Slavic version of carnival, using remaining dairy products to make blini and other rich pastries for Cheesefare week.
Another aspect of preparing for the Great Fast – which has nothing to do with food – takes place on the Wednesday and Friday of Cheesefare week. We observe the cycle of daily services using the Lenten form which will be our manner of prayer during the weekdays of the Great Fast.
The Lenten forms of daily prayer include the following variations from our ordinary practice:
- The Divine Liturgy is not served, so that the entire day may be a fast day;
- Every service is longer than usual and includes the prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian, recited while making a number of prostrations;
- Most daily services contain more psalms on fast days than otherwise;
- Orthros (matins) includes Biblical canticles on which our canons are based;
- Vespers includes readings from the Old Testament every day;
- Another Old Testament reading is included in the Sixth Hour on fast days;
- Other texts, such as patristic homilies or The Ladder by St John Climacos might be added in monasteries.
Perhaps the greatest variation in the daily cycle occurs in compline, the Church’s prayer for the end of the day. Like many of our daily offices, compline is the Christian’s personal night prayer which became formalized as a liturgical service with the development of monasticism in the fourth century. Its Byzantine title, apodeipnon (the after-supper prayer), reflects its monastic origin. The evening meal would be the day’s last common activity. The monks would disperse to their cells and recite compline there or before the door of the church on the way to their cells.
Today compline ordinarily is served in church and concludes with an intercessory litany and prayers for mutual forgiveness of the day’s offenses. In this form it is often used in parishes after meetings or classes.
The Lenten form – Great Compline – on the other hand, is a solemnly sung service with several hymns and refrains designed for cantors and choirs singing in response to one another. The first of these is a choral version of Isaiah 8:9-10 and 9:2, 6 with the refrain “God is with us.” This chant is often associated with Christmas. In fact, Great Compline is also served on the eves of Christmas and the Theophany, which are fast days. In Slavic churches this service is often joined to Liti hymns with the blessing of wheat, wine and oil and/or matins as an all-night vigil.
The second hymn in Great Compline is a praise of God culminating with the words of the seraphim, also taken from Isaiah, “Holy, holy, holy, O thrice-holy Lord!” which is followed by a litany invoking the intercession of the saints.
The final antiphonal chant is Psalm 150 sung with the refrain “O Lord of Hosts, be with us…” In Arabic-speaking countries Great Compline is popularly called “Lord of hosts” because of this refrain.
Another unusual part of this service is the Prayer of Manasseh, King of Judah. We read in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles that Manasseh was one of the most idolatrous kings of Judah. Taken captive by the Assyrians, Manasseh repented and was eventually restored to his throne (see 2 Chronicles 33:15–17). The prayer is found in some editions of the Bible in both East and West but not in others. In the sixteenth century Pope Clement VIII included the prayer in an appendix to the Vulgate, stating that it should continue to be read “lest it perish entirely.”
During the first week of the Great Fast a Gospel reading and canon may be included in Great Compline as well.
The Old Testament Readings
During the Great Fast the readings at the Sixth Hour are taken from Isaiah while at vespers we read from Genesis and Proverbs. During Cheesefare week, however, we read from two other books. On Wednesday the readings are from the prophet Joel who called the people of Jerusalem to fast in response to a plague of locusts: “Now, therefore,” says the Lord, “Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm … Blow the trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast, call a sacred assembly; gather the people, sanctify the congregation…” (Joel 2:12-16).
Some interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, have seen the “locusts” as referring to those members of the Jewish people who, in the words of Isaiah 5:8, “join house to house and field to field,” devouring their country in the pursuit of excess. This understanding is particularly appropriate for the beginning of our fast when the Lord calls us to eliminate excess from our lives that we might fill them with Him.
On Friday we read from the prophet Zechariah who lived during the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. He too speaks of fasting but in a joyful context: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be joy and gladness and cheerful feasts for the house of Judah. Therefore love truth and peace’” (Zechariah 8:19). Fasting here is joyful not somber because it heralds the blessings of God. The result of this fast, according to the prophet, is a people so transformed that others will be drawn to God by seeing His presence in their lives. “Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men of every nationality, speaking different tongues, shall take hold, yes, take hold of every Jew by the edge of his garment and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (Zechariah 8:23).
Through greed we were once stripped naked, overcome by the bitter tasting of the forbidden fruit, and we were exiled from God. Let us turn back in repentance, fasting from the food that gives us pleasure. Let us purify our senses on which our Enemy makes war. Let us strengthen our hearts with the hope of grace, and not with foods which brought no benefits to those who trusted in them. Our food shall be the Lamb of God on the holy and radiant night of His Rising. He is the Victim offered for us, given in communion to the Apostles on the evening of the Mysteries, who scatters the darkness of ignorance by the Light of His Resurrection!
The gateway to divine repentance has been opened. Let us enter eagerly, purified in our bodies and observing abstinence from food and passions, as obedient servants of Christ, who has called the world into the heavenly Kingdom. Let us offer to the King of All a tenth part of the whole year, that we may look with love upon His Resurrection.
Let us hasten to wash away through fasting the filth of our transgressions. Through acts of mercy and compassion to the needy, let us enter into the bridal chamber of Christ the Bridegroom, who grants us His great mercy.